Track and trail

Hoping to make last February’s walk in New Zealand, I wrote last summer about seeing the track at Wanganui where Peter Snell broke the mile world record in early 1962. Now that it looks like I’ll finally be going Kiwi tramping this coming winter, I’ll really have the chance. That track, which was grass* and something over 4-1/2 laps to the mile, was replaced during the ’90s with something more modern, but in 2009 the city added a statue of Snell in compensation.

Here’s what the great Snell did on the grass at Wanganui: 61.3, 59.5 (1:59.8), 59.0 (2:59.8), then a thundering 54.6, which made for a last half-mile of 1:53.6. He wrote later that “I don’t think I’ve ever felt such a glorious feeling of strength and speed without strain as I did during the final exhilarating 300 yards.” Britain’s Bruce Tulloh, famous for running barefoot, was second at 3:59.3. (It was his only sub-four-minute mile.) Snell’s 3:54.5 broke Herb Elliot’s record by a tenth. (How much would you have paid to watch those two guys race?).

In 1964, Snell drove his own record down a little farther about a month after winning both the 800 and the 1,500 at the Tokyo Olympics, but he did so in an entirely different (and uncharacteristic) style. He ran positive splits: 56.4, 57.7 (1:54.1), 60.2 (2:54.3), 59.8. Czechoslovakia’s Joseph Odlozil ran second in 3:56.4, and Snell’s New Zealand teammate, John Davies, was third in 3:56.8—their precise finish order at Tokyo. They went out like three maniacs (why?), and after that brutal first half, Snell had to make his own pace to break his own record and defeat the two next best milers in the world by the miling eternity of better than two seconds. This race was at Auckland, so I’ll see that track, too.

Iffley was tops, though. For me, the ur-track.

* The SI article linked to above claims that grass tracks were a second a lap slower than cinder tracks, implying that Snell’s record would have been much quicker on the conventional surface of the day. A few years later, cinder tracks were often said to be a second a lap slower than the then-new synthetic tracks. I actually ran on lots of grass tracks when I was in high school, but I always felt it was their dips and rises and lumpiness rather than their surface that made them slower than a good cinder track. The Wanganui track was like a golf green. A lot of older runners would probably agree that wet, muddy, chewed up cinders are slower than just about anything…but a good, firm big-time cinder track four seconds a mile slower than all-weather? Doubt it. I ran a lot of races indoors on banked boards, 11 laps to the mile (and wonderfully noisy beneath the thundering herd). Everything else being equal, even those weren’t worth a second a quarter.


Track and trail — 2 Comments

  1. Lovely article!

    I had the good fortune to meet Bruce Tulloh when I was a schoolboy miler – he was the PE teacher at a school in Reading (or was it Tilehurst?) (Furze Platt?) who our school used to race against quite regularly. Even though he was running the opposition he was a great help to me. A thoroughly decent man.

    Good luck at Wanganui!

  2. Thanks, Alan. How nice to hear that about Bruce Tulloh.

    Over the years I've developed a personally satisfying but probably deeply flawed working theory that I'm very likely to find distance runners, which Tulloh mostly was, to be decent in greater proportion than the population—even the greater population of runners—in general.

    (Then again, I ran distance. :-p)

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